The Rat People (Novel Excerpt)

Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Your journey. Your journey will take. Will take. Approx-imate-ly three hours if you go straight through. You may pause at any time. Some of you. You will not be able to. Complete the journey. Especially. Especially if you have never been to space. Before. We have taken the liberty of providing a Glossary, for new travelers. Enjoy your journey. Bienvenida. Bienvenida. Bienvenida. Su viaje. Su viaje tomará. Tomará. Aproxi – mada -mente tres horas si se va directamente. Usted podrá parar en cualquier momento. Algo de usted. Usted no será capaz de hacerlo. De completar el viaje. Especialmente. Especialmente si usted nunca ha estado en el espacio. Antes. Nos hemos tomado la libertad de ofrecer un glosario, para todos los nuevos viajeros. Disfrute de su viaje. 欢迎光临。欢迎光临。欢迎光临。您的旅程。您的旅程需要。需要。三个小时左右,如果您直接通过。您可以随时暂停。乘客当中。会有些不能够。不能够完成旅程的人。尤其。尤其如果您从没去过太空。从没去过。我们为方便乘客而提供一份词汇. 一帆顺风。

Ch. 1 – Barnett

It’s hard to describe Barnett College to someone who has never been there. Dazzling green everywhere, and it’s not just the money either. Surrounded by old oak trees and mint-colored statues of PIPs who have done things, Barnett looks less like a college and more like a museum of PIP history and monuments. There’s those heavy ancient buildings that sink into the ground, the security guards in their polished black shoes and forest green uniforms…The whole place is like going to another world, or better yet, like visiting a world better and more beautiful than the one you already know. And, you’ve never seen girls like this—not now, not tomorrow, not ever in your entire life. There are all these beautiful girls–black, brown, tan and yellow—dressed in white dresses and looking like angels that could, at any moment, take off and fly. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Barnett, or even read much about it in the paper, and though I know it isn’t true, I’d like to think that this is the one place in the solar system where life has remained the same. Barnett is named after Ida B. Wells Barnett, the twentieth century journalist who devoted her entire life to fighting lynchings, discrimination, and violence. And so perhaps that’s why a mixture of sadness and resiliency hangs over the campus and makes it all the more beautiful.

Barnett was, in those days, home to the International Space Program of the First Order of the Highest Merit. And because of that, people spent years studying—who doesn’t want to know what it’s like to float through worlds no one else has visited? Who doesn’t want to see god up-close? But few got in, even fewer made it through. Years later, I’d run into former classmates—some of whom gotten hooked on Blue when the stress got too much, others who’d made monuments out of their marriages and families or their high-earning but boring careers—and when they’d look towards me with hope or away from me in embarrassment, and wait for me to tell them how glorious it all was, they were always disappointed in my response. Because what could I tell them that they could understand? You couldn’t make them realize that the pain of the physical examinations—the ice baths to prepare your body for the extreme temperatures, the nausea you felt after twelve hours locked in the weightless chamber—that was part of it. They wouldn’t see how studying until you had headaches, until you dreamed of nothing but physics equations and calculus formulas—that was part of it too. And they’d never understand that if you didn’t learn to enjoy that part of it, the part that left you raw and exhausted and empty, then you’d never find the peak glorious, or even see the wonder in orbiting a new star.

Some I knew the day we met they wouldn’t make it out. Girls like Narhonda Rogers or Chandra Tate—doomed from the minute they stepped inside the campus’s gates. But Barnett students like my roommate, Ashland Edwards, were hard to figure. When I walked into our shared dorm room that very first day, she let me know how much she liked control.

“Put your bag there, on the bed next to the window.” Ashland stood in the middle of the room, bags at her feet. It’s possible she’d arrived just minutes before me, but she directed me as though the room and everything in it, had always belonged to her.

I placed my bag on the plastic-covered mattress Ashland pointed to. I’d learned that when people needed that much power, you gave it to them—that is, until you can figure out the reason for their need.

“You got your bag at Shop-Well?” Ashland moved her own bags towards her bed, which was across from mine and closest to the door.

“It was on sale.”

“I know. And they’ll know. So throw it out.” Ashland had unfolded a fitted navy bed sheet, and the material had to have been cotton, but it looked softer, more luxurious than that. But the material wasn’t what made the sheets something special. It was the pattern, the way silvery clusters of stars and moons made those sheets look like the night sky. You looked at those sheets and felt the owner was someone who belonged here, was destined to be part of the Space Program.

I watched Ashland smooth non-existent wrinkles from her sheets. She was tall, approximately five-eight or five-nine, and her bust, waist, and hips formed a perfect hyperbola. Her eyes were twin elliptic hyperboloids, bright and black—the color of carbon when it is in the allotropic form of graphite. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was unambiguously pretty, which may be more useful.

“Who’s in that picture over there?” Ashland pointed at a picture I’d put on the desk near my bed; besides the beds, our room’s only furniture was those desks. Clearly, we were expected to sleep and study, and anything else was a distraction. That didn’t bother me. I came to Barnett to become a space traveler, and I’d do what I was supposed to, no matter how tedious or painful, to get there.

And I’d just picked up an advantage: when Ashland said “there,” a sweet trace of whatever Mississippian or Alabamian country town her folks were from slipped out and muddied the “er” into an “ar”; “there” became “thar,” and nothing was wrong about that—except she was so damn self-conscious about it. That little trace of southern culture could have been used to her advantage, a means of connecting with her professors, many of whom were themselves only a generation (if that) removed from black southern speech. But as soon as the “thar” popped out, Ashland looked as though she wished she could make the word itself dissolve, and she turned from my picture back to her sheets, her fingers smoothing the invisible wrinkles. So now we were more than equals. She had those sheets and the understanding, somehow, of how this system worked, but she was ashamed of who she was—and I have never at any time ever been ashamed of anything that makes me who I am.

I glanced at the antique silver frame, which highlighted a contemporary image: the happy couple, glowing in new space-suits, who’d come with the frame. But that’s not what I told Ashland.

“My mother died a few years ago,” I said. “I didn’t know my father. The woman in the picture is my half-sister. The man holding her is her boyfriend.” What I said wasn’t true. That day, the day Ashland and I met, my parents had been married for more than thirty-five years. Nearly every Sunday, no matter the weather, they walked out to their big, screened-in porch and sat with bowls of vanilla—always vanilla, not even chocolate sauce or sprinkles to break the monotony—ice cream in their laps, eating clumsily but in unison, their silver spoons spanking their bowls.

“Sorry to hear that,” Ashland spoke in such a way that I knew she believed my story but just didn’t care. “The Kappas are throwing a party, just for us in ISP—“

“How’d you know? ISP acceptances don’t get announced until the first convocation.”

“Everybody in ISP rooms together. That’s how we ended up in the Jemison dorm.”

“Doesn’t say anything about that on the building’s QR code.”

Ashland smiled. “For real? You think it’s all just laid out for you, written down real pretty somewhere? You can’t locate everything through FingerSnap.”

I frowned. FingerSnap had always been my primary source of knowledge. I didn’t own much, but I’d made sure to have the best implant on the market, had saved my allowance and work part-time jobs for a model with a download speed in the milliseconds. And this is what I told Ashland: “But I have the highest-quality implant.”

I didn’t think I’d said anything revelatory, but my response made Ashland laugh— genuine laughter, not the canned robot-laughter I’d heard from my FingerSnap pals.

“You got a lot to learn, Kep-10,” Ashland opened our door, and I followed her into a hallway overflowing with other ISP students carrying lamps, comforters, trunks. I tried not to show it but I was disturbed. FingerSnap had never let me down before—and it sickened me to think something so well-designed could possess a design flaw. But back then, I hadn’t learned that there’s always a source of error, no matter how well-controlled the experiment.

Ch. 2 – From the Washington Post (the Intergalactic Edition)

Downloading…Downloading.

Transmission complete.

Group of Rat-People Gather on the North Lawn as Member of Secret Service Counter Assault Team Surveys from Roof

By Jerry Markon and Julie Zauzmer

October 23 at 12:11 AM—Washington Post Intergalactic Edition

A high-ranking Rat-Officer jumped the White House fence Wednesday night and was taken into custody after being bitten by a guard dog, officials said, just weeks after two Rat People made it deep into the executive mansion amid a series of security failures.

Secret Service agents and K-9 units quickly apprehended the latest fence jumper, who authorities identified as Leonard Leopard, 23, of Planet XYZ. He was taken to a hospital with injuries from a dog bite, and charges against him were pending, authorities said.

Two of the Secret Service dogs—named Hurricane and Jordan—were taken to a veterinarian and treated for the rabies they suffered from rat bites.

Leopard was charged with two counts of assault on a police officer—a charge that stems from his attack on the dogs, along with one count of making threats and four counts of resisting and unlawful entry. All charges except for resisting and unlawful threats are felonies; Leopard was unarmed at the time of his arrest.

Despite its quick ending, the struggle close to the executive mansion prompted a burst of activity from security personnel. Authorities shut down Lafayette Square, moving dozens of tourists to H Street NW, and the White House remained under Lockdown for more than 90 minutes afterward.

Ch. 3 – Superfamily Muroidea

“Lieutenant Oliver was one of my better students.”
–Dr. Lanya Bellona, former professor

“Rats are social creatures. Studies from the University of Chicago suggest they’re more empathetic than humans,” Professor Lanya Bellona’s FingerSnap was worn, and when she spoke, you heard the grinding of oxidized iron. “Jaak Panksepp, Science. Gita Das and P.L. Broadhurst, Canadian Journal of Psychology. Download those articles. You’ll apply this information in your next academic challenge.”

Thirty-seven minds began downloading all they could find from Panksepp, Das, and Broadhurst. The search took seconds, but even so we were afraid of earning our professor’s displeasure. On a campus that valued order, Dr. Bellona was particularly rigid, and we both feared and admired her. In those days, she was a full professor at Barnett and a familiar presence on campus. You’d see her in the lab or maybe in her classroom, but never in the cafeteria–I don’t think she ate and preferred, instead, to swallow orange meal tablets. As a result, her body was slight. She wore a plain gray business suit, a size or two too big, a skirt that stopped an inch above her knees, and plain black flats that wobbled against her feet. Her makeup, if she wore any, was subdued. She’d pulled her hair back in a single braid, pulled tight against her skull. What stood out were her eyes, which resembled those of the crocodylus niloticus, the African crocodile. Her probing black pupils melted her irises.

“If they’re so empathetic, why haven’t they been more hospitable to our species?” In every classroom, there’s always that one student who wants to show off, determined to prove her worth. Chandra Tate was that student. Dressed in a vintage space suit, a Valentina Tereshkova original, and armed with the latest 3-D tablet, Chandra looked the part of an ISP student. But her answers were not well thought-out, the result of rapidly sifting through her FingerSnap downloads without taking the time to analyze them. “The Rat People are of the Superfamily Muroidea. It is widely assumed that they are determined to take over our planet,” Chandra continued, digging herself in deeper. “It has also been said that the Rat People wish to annihilate Homo sapiens.”

“It ‘has been said’ and ‘widely assumed’? ‘Said’ and ‘widely assumed’ by whom?” Dr. Bellona’s finger wavered above her electronic buzzer. “May I remind you, Lieutenant Tate, that in this class, you cite your sources. We evolved only 200,000 years ago, so our species is in some ways less sophisticated than the Rat People. Add research from McDougall, Brown and Fleagle to your memory bank. Basic knowledge, Lieutenant Tate. It should have been downloaded in primary school. Also adjust your FingerSnap settings. You need to be better equipped for modern life.”

But Chandra was not deterred. “Buzz me if you wish, Professor Bellona,” she said. “These Rat People are dirty, immoral, unwashed pieces of NSH!

When “NSH” rolled out of Chandra’s mouth, our quiet classroom grew even stiller. We paused our downloading, and room’s soft humming stopped. In the silence, the room seemed to grow warmer, as if Chandra’s anger gave off heat. (“Can you believe she just dropped the NSH bomb?” Candace Starr, the cadet sitting to my left whispered, and Professor Bellona stared at her, as though she’d echoed her own thoughts.)

“Don’t use language like that in my classroom, Lieutenant Tate,” Professor Bellona didn’t turn up her voice modulator, but in the silence, her words sounded like a scream. “This is an academic environment. We avoid profanity here.”

“A Rat Person killed my cousin!” Chandra shouted before running out the classroom.

“Follow her,” Professor Bellona pointed at me with her laser. “Calm her down and adjust her settings. We can’t have emotional disturbances like this in our program.”

I took my time walking out of the classroom, passed the gray lockers covered with posters of the Ovits family, passed the bulletin board advertising internships and summer space vacations (a trip to the moon was only 500 chips!). It was cool and quiet along the hall. It was dark too, and after the classroom’s glowing blue-white monitors, I felt like I traveled along a hidden tunnel, lodged inside a deep cave. Life felt private and mysterious, in a way it rarely does. Perhaps I could have walked faster, but the darkness soothed me, and I knew I didn’t have to. Chandra was where I knew she’d be, huddled on the floor of the woman’s restroom chamber. I kicked her on the shin.

“Wash your face,” I said. “Take a Control pill. Then come back and work.”

Chandra didn’t respond, so I kicked her again, harder this time. The pain startled her and she stopped crying.

“She was my favorite cousin, Lieutenant.” Chandra wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her space suit. “Went on my first space trip with her. And when you see the moon with someone, when space becomes this beautiful darkness you can feel and touch, it changes you…I can’t let go. She was better than me. But those Rat People. They ate her like she was just a piece of meat.”

“To them, she was.”

“No, she wasn’t.” Chandra looked at me with a hurt seldom seen in an era of Control pills and behavior modification programs. “She was my cousin, and she should be here, in this program, right now. But those Rat People chewed and gnawed and swallowed her. I watched it happen. I was walking up to her house, and I had a Magic Phone in my hand, but didn’t call. I didn’t reach out. I just stood there and watched. I saw a group of the Rat People surrounding her, and I heard her screaming and I heard her crying. And I saw the blood on the street in front of her house. And I turned around and ran.”

“You were a coward then, and you’re a coward now.” I kicked her again, hard as I could, hard enough to deflate some of the air in her expensive space suit. It sank around her, like an empty balloon. I kicked and kicked until finally Chandra stood up.

She took the Control pill out of my palm, swallowed it without water. When she did go to the sink, she splashed water on her face but wouldn’t drink though I warned her to do so.

“It’ll get lodged in your throat. You’re supposed to take these pills with water.”

“I’m okay,” she nodded at her mirror reflection before she turned and faced me. “I feel it. Deep inside my stomach, I feel it. I’m in control now.”

Ch. 4 – The Rat Riots, Part I

All you heard was the sound of glass breaking.

You’d think a riot would happen at night, in the darkness, but these riots shook the streets at daylight.

The sun would have just appeared. The sky would have just faded from black to the world’s palest blue. And in that creamy blue light, there’d be hundreds of them, some crawling, most standing on their hind-legs, smashing windows, mirrors, and doors. Their paws bloody, shards of glass glistening against their fur.

We never knew when a riot would break out. Maybe we could have figured it out if we thought long enough. If we had really wanted to, we could have understood their anger. But those thoughts made us shiver inside and hate ourselves. So, instead, we learned to lock our doors.

Ch. 5 – SlimGum & MoneyChips

“She ain’t know shit about life and the way things are supposed to get done.”
–Narhonda Rogers, Space Commander (and former classmate)

Chandra Tate may have been an idiot and a coward, but she wasn’t the only one who was afraid of the Rat People. In those days, we all were. But we couldn’t show our fear. If you were a member of ISP, you never showed fear. Instead, you thought of new ways to fight. If you were like Dr. Bellona, you intellectualized your fears, and the Rat People became a curiosity, a subject to be studied, dissected, and perhaps understood. Or if you were another sort of person, maybe you learned to love (or at least pretended to love) what scared you. But most of us thought it easier to ignore our fears, and this strategy was effective–in the daytime. In the sunlight, we could race around campus and bury ourselves in our books and songs and meals and papers and make ourselves believe none of it mattered. It was only at night that we felt the Rat People’s claws scratch through our skulls and tear away at our fleshy, vulnerable brains. Maybe this way of fighting–ignoring our fears–was ineffective, and it’s true, most students burned out. But what else could we do? Because we didn’t understand our enemy, we feared them even more, and yet, we still had to live our lives despite those fears, insecurities. So we adopted a strategy because we understood the one thing in life that really mattered–strategy.

Ironically, country and unsophisticated Narhonda Rogers understood the Rat People best. Narhonda lived on my floor, and I’d often see her outside the dorm, studying. She’d be bent over her tablet, her skinny arms drawing circles and other geometric shapes in the air, her copper-colored eyes squinting, focused and tiny as quarks. On Fridays, all of the other girls would hop into z-cars and leave to visit families, lovers, or friends at other schools, but Narhonda always walked alone towards the campus’s back gates, where she’d take the bus.

Narhonda wasn’t someone I’d seek out to be a friend. I’d spent a fortune on FingerSnap, though I wasn’t from a family loaded with chips. But when I looked down at Narhonda’s wrist, I could tell her FingerSnap device was cheaply made. The flesh-colored paint covering her device was old and worn, and I wondered how she could listen to music, phone friends, or even do homework with such an old model. Obviously, Narhonda and I had different values, but there were other things too: she spoke slowly, so slowly people thought she was stupid, and she didn’t have Ashland’s style or nonchalance–the two qualities you needed if you really were equipped for modern life. Still, I was curious.

“You live in one of the Rat neighborhoods?” I asked. “That’s how come you always take the bus? I know the busses go in that direction.”

My hand brushed Narhonda’s shoulder, but the impatient look she gave me told me I’d better remove it–quickly.

“You sure are slow,” Narhonda shook her head. I placed my hand by my side, but I felt familiarity between us–Narhonda was teasing me, and I was somehow in on the joke.

Narhonda blew a bubble–big and shiny, light blue with green dots.

“You’re chewing SlimGum?” Seeing Narhonda chew SlimGum was almost as strange as seeing her take the southwest bus headed to the Rat district. In those days, SlimGum was still in its trial stages, considered dangerous by most people. And Narhonda was nowhere near overweight.

”I’m not on no diet or nothing. Just like the taste.” Narhonda paused long enough to blow another enormous bubble filled with those infamous green crystals.

I nodded. Then waited for Narhonda to answer my question, my real question.

“It’s gonna be one of us. They want girls. From the Space Program. Our Space Program.”

“Already?”

“You are so NSH-ing slow,” Narhonda repeated. I could tell she was amused. She glanced at me and then off in the distance, at the other students who hugged and waved goodbyes to each other, hopping into waiting e-cars in what seemed like slow motion. The anticipation of weekend fun, a fun neither Narhonda nor I ever seemed to be part of, floated past with the lightness of a dream.

“It’s gonna be one of us,” Narhonda continued. “One of us is gonna save us from the Rats. The folks in charge want us young so they can train us up.”

“That’s where you go every weekend? To study the Rats?”

Narhonda nodded. “Somebody has to. ‘Cause maybe it’ll be more than one, maybe they’ll take two or three or four, but I know somehow we’re gonna be a part of this. They’re looking at us now. ‘Cause they the present. They got power now. But a role in the Space Program–you predict the future.”

The sky sounded like it grunted. A heavy, uncomfortable sound, like a person lifting a heavy object, tumbled from the clouds. I looked away from Narhonda and her gigantic bubbles. In the distance, an enormous eco-bus hovered above the road. The bus was the kind you rarely see anymore, with enormous solar panels, faded advertisements for Mud beer.

“My ride,” Narhonda said. “It won’t wait forever,” she murmured, and then she was gone, her skinny legs dragging her body towards the waiting, floating bus.

I watched her climb in. I thought, watching her stumble through her purse–checking for a MoneyChip or whatever she needed to board–that we should be friends, that I should feel we had something in common. But I didn’t. Her knowing attitude annoyed me. Who was she to know more about life than I did?

Ch. 6 – Equipping Yourself for Modern Life

“Sex with her was amazing. She had this way of snapping, really snapping her fingers, that I haven’t experienced before or since.”–Polaris Herschel, former husband

“Best NSH-ing of my life? Had to be one of the Rat Women,” Messier Carson, whose 3.9897 GPA ranked him first at Guion Bluford, the all-male space academy across from Barnett, was known for saying things to shock people. Ashland and I were better known for never being shocked.

“What about her tail, Kep-10? It get in the way?” Ashland blew Blue smoke from first her nose, then her ears—that was one of her talents—and it drew the attention away from Messier’s outrageous claim. Our friends laughed; Phecda Merak, GPA 3.9987/ranked third in our class at Barnett, even blushed. (Aside: neither Ashland nor I thought Phecda had a shot of making it out the program. She was the easily embarrassed type, and we could see her blush even through a haze of Blue. We thought Phecda would quit the minute she started vomiting in front of us during training in the extra-vehicular activity simulation chamber.)

Our summer exams were a week away, and we had headaches from studying so much, stomachaches from swallowing cognitive-enhancing drug cocktails. But that evening, we weren’t thinking about downloading formulas. It was July of 2061, a gentle time, a quiet time. The Great Fires hadn’t gone into effect yet, and only a few dozen people had randomly exploded. In those days, you could go out to a hilly, dark green field, spread a blanket, and wait for something interesting to happen. That’s what we were doing then, the seven of us, our eyes focused on the sky as we waited for Halley’s Comet to brighten the evening like a cloud of dirty snow. We sat on blankets or on the grass itself, and some of us even floated a little, if that Blue high had hit us. The Blue made the air damp and hot, and maybe we shouldn’t have smoked so much of it. But, again, it was a simpler time. No one knew about the dangers of Blue—it hadn’t been outlawed yet.

“You weren’t worried about catching yersinia pestis?” Callisto Megrez, GPA 3.9999/tied with Ashland for first in the Barnett class, wondered.

“We used protection.” Messier said. He’d taken out a pack of Slim Gum and was chewing thoughtfully. It was hard to tell what he was thinking. His eyes were far-off, like he was being sentimental, but his voice retained its charming, robotic quality—Messier’s flat, controlled voice seduced homo sapiens and robots alike. “I’ll never forget the way her paws felt against my back. When she came her claws dug into my shoulder blade. I felt the blood trickle out of me. It was—thrilling.”

“I don’t know about the Rats, but I’ve been with a couple of ‘bots,” Ashland said. “A male bot and a female one too. They’ve been programmed to be extra responsive. I think they’re better than people.”

“Call me old-fashioned but I prefer people.” Polaris Herschel, GPA 3.9898 but hovering around a 3.9899, spoke softly. His voice had the same musical quality of the Magic Phone’s most recent narrator. He was a student in the Space Arts program, and his grandmother had starred in an acclaimed Frances Bodomo film. We knew he had a connection to space, that he was curious about the unknown, but we were never sure what to do with him and didn’t feel he was one of us. There was a quote on the outside of our dormitory, from the Space Explorer for which our dorm was named, about how both “the arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.” Ashland and I had spent more time staring at that quote than either of us cared to admit. We knew we’d have to fulfill the Jes Grew dance requirement (all Barnett students had to be able to perform the Jes Grew dance, and applicants for the Space Program needed to show that they could hold their breath for four minutes without outside oxygen). Still, at the time, we considered it frivolous. Why, after all, should dancing be a requirement for graduation from a Space Program? No one danced in space.

“It’s nice being with an actual person, makes you feel like a true Kep-10,” Polaris continued as Callisto and Messier reached for sandwiches. “I don’t think we’ve manufactured a replacement for the human touch.” Polaris, I knew, had a knack for the human touch. Two months prior, the two of us had started an intimate FingerSnap relationship. Things had slowed down, but in the beginning, we’d had so much FingerSnap sex, the tips of our fingers had grown numb. But here in person, I wanted him even more. The smattering of acne on his chin resembled coralloids formed by evaporation, and his eyes were dark congruent isosceles triangles. He was certainly attractive, and I experienced something akin to macroshock whenever he was near.

“You are old-fashioned, and you sound speciest,” Phecda said. There was anger in her voice, the kind of anger those of us in the Program rarely displayed. “So I guess now you all think less of me? For liking the Rat People so much? But they make you feel, feel everything more deeply. The Rats are better than ‘bots, even if they do like to bite.”

Phecda’s comments did make us think less of her. They made us uncomfortable, more so than Messier’s. It was one thing to experience a fleeting desire, an attraction for something strange and exotic. It was completely another to release large quantities of oxytocin and experience such a high degree of empathy for a species not your own. By now, though, Phecda had realized her mistake. She was more silent and embarrassed than usual while the rest of us laughed and ate.

A woman walked by and nearly knocked over our sandwiches and telescopes. She wore neither space suit nor FaceShade and we could see her body and eyes. Her black hair matched her black sleeveless dress and an expensive emerald-and-sapphire eye enhancement had been expertly placed in her cornea. She had a tattoo, on her arm, of herself, drawn so that the tattoo mimicked her movements exactly. We watched her walk to a point higher than ours and spread a large wool blanket, her tattooed image fluttering with her arm’s movements. For some reason, this gesture soothed us. We were glad for the interruption.

The comet hadn’t yet appeared, but as I bit into my Ecohabitare-grown tomato-and-rosemary sandwich, I heard an explosion. I looked over my shoulder and saw the black sky glisten orange and red.

“What in the NSH?” Callisto asked. Behind her was the tattooed woman—or, really, her remnants—bursting firecracker-like into the sky. Her teeth were her only identifiable parts. Shiny and bright, dozens of incisors, canines, premolars, and molars fell from the sky like hard, bright snowflakes.

“Funny,” Messier said. “I didn’t hear any squeaking.”

“Depends.” Ashland brushed a couple of teeth off her shoulders. “I saw a man blow up once. His squeaking was so light it sounded like music.”

“Guess that’s what life’s like, when you get severe NSH,” Polaris swallowed. I looked over and saw his cheeks were wet. This annoyed me, but I knew he was one of the artsy kids. Back in the 2060s, that type was still encouraged to emote.

“Proper maintenance,” I hissed. “It’s key.”

Polaris realized he’d irritated me. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, “it’s just—I’ve never seen anyone explode up-close before.”

“Get over it, Kep-10,” Ashland said. “That’s the third explosion I’ve seen in the last two years. It’s messed up, but you gotta face facts—some people just aren’t equipped for modern life.”

“Dry your tears.” I agreed and reached for another sandwich. “You think regular folks die fast and hard? Think about what life’s like for us, your average space traveler.”

Ch. 7 – The News Report from TV100

Transmitting…Transmitting…Your download speed is slower than usual. Please adjust your settings. Your download speed is…Transmitted. Downloaded.

URSA: Good evening. I’m Ursa Doradus.

GU: And I’m Gu Naud.

URSA & GU: Welcome to FingerSnap-TV100, the Galaxy’s Number One Station…

URSA: A series of nickel-related explosions, better known by a popular acronym too profane to say on air, have increased, sparking concerns around planet earth. Sunita Vela, President of the International Center for Human Space Exploration and Technological Safety, met with officials from seventy-six different countries today, traveling over multiple time zones to do so.

GU: Bet she has one horrible case of jet-lag!

URSA: I’m sure…Here’s an image of Vela live, from Iceland. If you look closely, you’ll see a couple of people exploding behind her.

GU: Aw, yes. That man carrying groceries to his car—he looks ready to pop.

URSA: Some people just aren’t equipped for modern life. And now, for the weather. Tim Star?

TIM: The nickel-related outbreaks have triggered unusual weather conditions, with extreme rain expected this weekend. Rain and clouds will keep temperatures around 10 degrees cooler than normal for this year, making it one of the coldest winter in years, with temperatures hovering around the low to mid 90s. Sunday’s forecast returns to normal conditions for December, with temperatures reaching the low 100s. Back to you, Gu and Ursa…

GU: This concludes our broadcast. Join us in twenty seconds for latest, up-to-the-mili-second updates on the nickel outbreaks, the Rat People’s 2064 election results, and the other news affecting you and your planet…

URSA: Because on FingerSnap-TV 100, we give it to you first—faster than you can download it!

Ch. 8 – On the Front Lines

“She was brave. A true patriot, a true friend. The very essence of a Space Traveler.”
–Ashland Edwards, College Roommate

We knew we were going to die. We expected it and were ready for it—every second of our training had prepared us for the painful death that would happen while we were in peak physical and mental condition, while our bodies were still young and strong enough to feel every force of the blow, while our minds were still alert and present and able to transmit signals of trauma and terror.

But this, you see, was our dream. And from the time we were very young, we recognized that there would be no old age or retirement plans for us. We knew we’d never grow senile or pluck a gray hair from our scalps. And few of us married, and even fewer had children, given the unexpected and deadly nature of our jobs. Still, this is not to say our lives were devoid of joy or meaning. We were a spiritual group—how could we be anything but? Not when you knew that at any moment you could join that grand FingerSnap network in cyberspace.

Does this sound like a strange way to discuss death? Why? YOU know you’re going to die. And you expect it. Wouldn’t it be more surprising, really, not to die? The difference between you and the space traveler, my friend, is expectation. Well, expectation and preparation. Our training had made us aware that, at any moment, our souls could be uploaded, transmitted to another system, and this awareness made us more determined than ever to program ourselves to be as bug-free, as reliable as possible before the final upload.

Which is why the International Space Program required so much rigorous physical conditioning. During our second year of training, our physical conditioning coach, Selta Dragon, who was known for being a hard-ass, decided that during running drills, she’d chase students in her tiny e-car. Those who weren’t running fast enough received an electric shock—or worse. Ashland had received the lowest passing grade—a mark of “proficient”—last semester in physical conditioning. She knew Dragon’s class could knock her out the Space Program, as anyone who was less than “proficient” at anything was not considered worthy of becoming a Space Traveler.

“That NSH-ing bitch,” Ashland wheezed. She’d just been zapped for the fifth time in the last half-hour. I slowed down alongside her, even though we still had another hour-long obstacle course. And the sweat, pain, and danger of Dragon’s arrival were hard to reconcile with the beauty of the artificial meadow surrounding us. Dew and sunlight made the greenery sparkle, so much so you felt as though the plants and trees were living, growing things and not augmented-reality illusions.

“I’m not going to make it through, Kep-10,” she said.

“Take a Control pill,” I reached inside my space suit.

She brushed my hand away. “No, I need to feel this,” she said. She crouched low to the ground and vomited into soil covering the roots of a highly realistic oak tree. “I need to accept,” she continued, between heaves, “that my conditioning failed.” Ashland finished vomiting, wiped her mouth. She sat on the grass like every part of her body hurt, which could have been true—at that moment, pain slammed our bodies with the force of an e-car moving at top speed. This was not our fault: Ashland and I hadn’t grown up with money; neither of us were from one of those old, monied families that had built up generations of chips, so we couldn’t buy artificial parts as easily as our classmates. Most top space program cadets had ultra-modern artificial legs and arms that made physical challenges like these a lot less taxing. One of our classmates had even been able to afford an artificial heart; she, of course, had the program’s highest recorded velocity. But Ashland and I couldn’t afford those luxuries. We saved our chips for FingerSnap implants and downloads and hoped that, in the end, our performances in our best subjects–Language and Coding 510, Biology 920, Space Traveler’s Calculus 790, and Physics 820—would be what mattered most. Still, it was a gamble. We took steroids occasionally, just so we could be at least somewhat competitive during key physical challenges—and every once in awhile, we’d hide magnets in our classmates’ shoes when we felt their artificial legs had improved their speed a little too much—but always, we were aware that we were at a disadvantage.

“Get your NSH-ing ass up, Ash. You ever know Dragon to play around? She’ll kick you out the program for not finishing the course.”

“Go on without me,” Ashland was out of breath, so it was hard for me to make out what she was saying, but it was even harder for me to believe what I was hearing, to know she was giving up. It was easy to tell she was exhausted; her muscles shook from overuse, and sweat made her face glow like the inside of a FingerSnap circuit. Everything about her was red: she’d been shocked so many times, her cheeks and forehead were blistered, flushed with blood. But her eyes surprised me—they were red too. That’s what I noticed most. More than her flaky skin and shaking body, that’s what made it difficult to look at her. I was ashamed for her, and I knew if she’d allowed water molecules to escape, then she was far worse off than I could imagine. In the two years I’d known her, Ashland had been a model of human behavior. She was cool and in control, dry and ironic. She was, in short, a warrior, and epitomized everything a Space Traveler was supposed to be.

“My conditioning failed,” Ashland repeated. “Maybe I should have saved my chips for an artificial leg, even if I couldn’t afford the pair. But it’s too late to think like that. You go on.”

I looked in the distance. Dragon’s car whipped over hills, and you could hear the glee in her voice as she zapped some of the slower girls, their bodies collapsing to ground, and you knew, seeing their bodies drop like corpses, that today would be their last day in the program, that for the rest of their lives they’d remember today as the day that had broken them, the day when they couldn’t make it out all the NSH surrounding them, and instead, let their bodies and spirits become mired in it.

“Get up! Get your NSH-ing ass up!” I screamed, and my voice lost its normal mechanical tone. I sounded like an infant just discovering how his or her program works. I wondered if both Ashland and I needed to be de-bugged, because I was certain water molecules escaped from me too. And then I was ashamed, because I knew this H20 had nothing to do with sweat.

“Lieutenants! Are you just sitting there? Space Travelers do not sit!” Dragon was so close she could zap us if she reached into her space suit’s pocket. One zap would knock Ashland out for good, and it would mean the end was close for me—my physical conditioning ranking would be reduced from “highly proficient” to a borderline “proficient” score.

“Take a circuit!” I yelled at Ashland.

She shook her head, the way I knew she would. “I can’t do that. I’ve never even taken one of my mother’s.”

“Will you take the NSH-ing circuit?” I grabbed her hand and transformed energy to her before she could protest. She was on her feet again, far less wobbly than before, and I wondered why circuit transfers weren’t more common. I didn’t feel weaker, even though my circuits had been reduced from 46 to 45. But this was a question I didn’t have time to fully consider. Dragon had aimed her zapper at us, but fortunately, she had missed. I knew that Dragon was an accurate shot and would not miss again. “Run!”

Holding hands, Ashland and I made it through the physical challenge, and our times were decent, allowing me to a maintain “a highly proficient” and Ashland to move from “proficient” to “highly proficient.” We never spoke of the circuit transfer to anyone, not even ourselves. To do so would have been a sign of weakness.

Ch. 9 – A Che-che-wah

A Che-che-wah. A Che-che-wah. A Che-che-che-wah.

Kool Moon: Aw yeah…and here’s another hit from D.J. Panksepp and the Bat Detector. A Che-che-wah’s our most requested song of the night. Those high frequencies have been a hit with listeners across the galaxy! We’re still taking requests, so call or Snap in…I think we have a caller. Caller, caller, are you there?

Caller: What in the NSH you doing?

Kool Moon: Try to avoid the profanity. This is a family show.

Caller: But you’re playing the Rat People?

Kool Moon: Hot 97* plays all the hits. And folks can’t get enough of those chirps. …A Che-cheh-wah. Folks love the sound of rat laughter.

Caller: What’s the world coming to? I tell you, back in my day we didn’t play songs like this on FingerSnap. These Rat People—they’re violent. They’re animals.

Kool Moon: Well technically—

Caller: People just go around snapping all the time, listening to these Rat People, who walk around like they own the earth. I’ll tell you what these Rat People need to do—they need to pull their damn pants up.

Kool Moon: The Rat People don’t wear pants—they’re rats.

Caller: I’m just saying—back in my day, we respected our elders. Nowadays we’ll put anything on FingerSnap. And folks need to remember that when you put something on FingerSnap, it’s for the whole galaxy see. I tell you, what do these kids think they’re doing?

Kool Moon: Wait a minute—

Caller: You mad I’m airing your dirty laundry? Your dirty laundry is cursing and calling each other ‘rats’ as they walk down the street. They think it’s cool. They’re laughing and singing ‘A Che-cheh-wah,’ all the while going nowhere. Hard-working people with chips taking care of those without. I tell you, the folks without the chips are not holding up their end in this deal. In the neighborhoods most of us grew up in, technology’s raising the children. Parenting—people don’t even know what that is today. This self-involved generation—I say, let the Rat People have ‘em. This generation. This NSH-ing generation. What’s it all coming to?

Ch. 10 – The Testing Office

“The bitch still owe me 20 chips.”
–Narhonda Rogers, Space Commander (and former classmate)

“You see that?” Narhonda pointed at Barnett’s testing office, known only to a few select upper-class women, and to Narhonda herself, who’d helped a senior write the code for her virtual art project, and now, to Ashland and to me. While the rest of Barnett was surrounded by its famous black gate and students entered campus by holding their wrists in front of it until it dissolved, neither Ashland nor I could figure out how to get inside the testing office. It didn’t have a door or windows. We thought there might be a code or an app, but we weren’t sure. “You not about to get in,” Narhonda said, and as always, her lazy drawl was undercut by the knowing tone in her voice. “They keep that shit on Lockdown.”

“They gotta have an app on FingerSnap that lets them in,” Ashland sounded doubtful. Like most other campuses across the nation, Barnett was safer than ever, and thanks to FingerSnap’s College Lockdown app, there hadn’t been a single incident of violence at a college in more than twenty years. Students installed College Lockdown upon enrollment, and the app monitored their bodies’ stress signals and set off an alarm if they were in danger while on campus (Lockdown was, of course, deactivated for quizzes and tests). Because of College Lockdown’s success, most schools had relaxed their safety precautions, but not Barnett. And Barnett had not only the latest version of Lockdown, but also its own traditions: the school would always be surrounded by its steely black gates; green-uniformed guards would continue to try to protect students who didn’t feel they needed protection; and buildings like this one would always be heavily secured through technology and physical force.

“Good luck with that, my Rats.” Narhonda looked as amused as ever by our confusion. “Don’t forget–you owe me twenty chips. Upload it to my account by midnight tonight.”

Ashland nodded. Narhonda stood up and scampered towards the eco-bus, leaving Ashland and me hiding in the bushes beside the testing office. For a few minutes, Ashland and I didn’t say anything because we couldn’t afford to mess up. Even though we were splitting it two ways, twenty chips was steep; we paid only because we were out of options. Fall exams a week away, and we hadn’t been able to afford a couple of the more expensive downloads. Compared with three hundred chips for a lab download, paying Narhonda twenty to show us the testing office was a bargain–if we could get in.

“If there was an app, Narhonda would have told us,” I said. “She wouldn’t keep that to herself.”

“App or no app–we’re in disguise,” Ashland lowered the Faceshade that covered ¾ of her face. “With the Faceshades, no one knows it’s us. So we walk fast, follow an upper-classman. That’s how we get in.”

“The guards?” A whispered question, though no one could hear. The only person nearby, an upper-class woman dressed in a Barnett-green pantsuit, had Finger-Snapped a potential paramour for a midnight sex-Snapping session. Now her focus was entirely on her wrist.

“Heyo.” The woman sounded like she was trying to sound laidback, even though she wasn’t. “Wait a minute. We got a bad connection-can’t see or feel you.”

The woman shook her wrist in a quick back and forth motion–and we caught a glimpse of her FingerSnap screen. The picture was fuzzy, but the person she was speaking to was obviously good-looking, with dark, slanted eyes and earth-colored skin.

“Ah, there we go,” the woman continued as the picture grew sharper. “I like that shirt you got on. Feels like cashmere. You smell good too–what’s the name of that cologne?”

Ashland and I smiled–if the woman was speaking to someone she liked, she’d get distracted, and we’d have an easier time getting in.

“Listen, Snap you back in a couple of seconds,” the woman said as she walked to the testing office door. “Got to handle something first.” The woman snapped her fingers and waved her wrist at the building in one smooth fluid motion. The building evaporated, along with the woman and Ashland, who had quick reflexes. The building reappeared, a solid collection of bricks and steel–and I was left in the cold.

But in a blink, the building grew hazy again, as though it were made of a material that you could blow or wish away. The surrounding bushes disappeared and then I was inside. Deep inside.

Years ago, I’d been on a tour of an early space explorer’s house. It’d been the middle of summer, and the preservationists didn’t allow climate control, and so the air had felt weighed down, heated and salt-saturated, like the sweat of decades of tourists clung to it and wrenched it of its life-giving particles. Walking into this building was like that. It was entering another moment in time, one too small and narrow to fit the soft, expansive bodies of modern life. To walk into this room was to feel blackness pressed against your body, to understand its power to smother and confine you. And so much blackness–from ceiling to wall to floor. Those wood floors must have been made of ebony, a deeply polished ebony, and while it’s strange to think of blackness as glowing, that’s the only way to describe them. Their gloss hurt the eyes.

In the darkness, I searched for a light switch. Finding none, my eyes adjusted to the glowing blackness.

The blackness made the building deceptively large. Towards the back of the main room were stairs, and those stairs led to more rooms that looked like smaller versions of the first one. I walked up the stairs and moved through the rest of the building, and finally understood the reason for all the darkness–the walls were made of a special material for showing large-screen versions of FingerSnap. This Barnett building, which looked like an early nineteenth-century Victorian building from the outside, was completely modern on the inside.

But where would you hide an exam? Were those FingerSnap wall-screens the only way of sharing information? Were there no tablets or holograms? And was there anything I could take with me? Perhaps Ashland was having more success, had located something of actual use.

I pressed on, stumbled up and around stairs, passed through more rooms, until I reached a room that resembled the ISP dormitory. The only difference: this dorm lacked a reception area; instead, a twelve-foot high FingerSnap dominated the space. Next to the FingerSnap screen, a fireplace, and then pictures upon pictures of Barnett graduates plastered against the wall. That afternoon, couches and chairs had been placed in a loose semi-circle around the FingerSnap screen. In that semi-circle, seven Barnett women munched on popcorn and watched the screen with interest. Momma Africa, the spiritual wellness guru, was taking a casserole out of an old-fashioned brick oven.

“Live the dream–and dream of life,” the on-screen Momma Africa announced. “Remember to nurture both body and soul.”

“Can someone turn the Smell-vision down? I’m allergic to tomatoes.” The girl speaking was pressed like a sideways question mark into one of the couches. She had a voice so low and melodic you felt she did you a favor by making a request.

“You need to upgrade your FingerSnap, Kipendo. All of us shouldn’t suffer because you’re a cheap-ass,” another student replied. But she Snapped the Smell-vision off and started laughing, which made everyone, including the sweet-voiced girl, laugh too.

I stared at them, not sure how to proceed. Would they ask questions? Call the campus police? I wanted to walk away. Before I could, the girl who’d made the snappy comment turned around. She wore a visual improvability–giant glasses that magnified her eyes and made them appear both shrewd and innocent. Her lips were pursed. It was impossible to tell if she was frowning–or smirking.

“Who are you?” the girl asked.

It was the first time that day someone had paid attention to me, and I didn’t know how to respond. Years ago, an urban legend had risen around Barnett’s campus. Legally, the two trespassers should have been prosecuted, then fined or perhaps sent to jail. Instead, they were shot by guards who claimed it was accidental, but the case was thrown out. Some folks said the case had been dismissed by a Barnett-educated judge. Another rumor was even more disturbing: some old-timers believed the guards still worked at Barnett; had, in fact, been promoted.

“You don’t live here,” the girl continued, her voice flat, certain. “Are you visiting? Except for honors students, no one’s allowed in the Testing Office, or this private dorm.”

I nodded at the girl’s question.

“Let her alone, Cara,” the musically-voiced girl said. “Maybe she’s trying to get away from the drama of that Ovitz parade.”

“Forgot about that–today the whole city’s at that parade.” A girl tossed popcorn at the screen.

“But she shouldn’t be here.” Cara’s wide eyes swallowed me and spit me out. “She doesn’t belong.” Five girls murmured in agreement.

“Naw, Kipendo’s right. If she wasn’t meant to be here, she wouldn’t be.” The person speaking was a little older than the rest. If Cara, Kipendo, and the others were in their late teens, then the woman across from them was in her early twenties. Her long legs dangled lazily against the couch, and her voice was firm, but not necessarily loud. She swung her legs to the floor and turned from the crowd of FingerSnap watchers to me. “Please get what you need, see who you need to. Then leave.”

I nodded again and darted down the first hall I saw, a hall so narrow it pressed itself against you like snug clothing. And yet, it somehow fit two chairs while leaving enough space for someone to walk through. Two girls sat in those chairs, one with her knees drawn to her chest, the other in a yoga position, her ankles resting over her thighs. They stared intently at heavy black words floating against an enormous white FingerSnap screen precariously taped to the wall.

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes of false charity,” the yoga girl whispered. Her friend started to ask a question but she felt my presence and turned from the screen and towards me. For a second, she looked uncertain whether to greet me or pounce, but I walked purposefully, and the girl nodded as though to say, both to herself and to me, “yes, you’re okay” before her eyes swung, magnet-like, back towards the screen.

I continued down the hall. Though the doors to most of the rooms were locked, the ones that were not were filled with people–girls sat on each other’s beds, doing each other’s hair and nails, talking, arguing, laughing–and those rooms’ open doors demanded whoever walked by to come in.

Having been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I knew I had to make the most of it. But I was finding nothing. The dorm certainly contained other floors I could have visited but I did not feel that would be wise. It was as though I’d been given some sort of temporary pass, that could at any moment be revoked. And I had only a few minutes until I had to meet Ashland. Whatever I was meant to find out about Barnett, I had to discover in that moment.

I reached the end of the hall. Two rooms remained. The one to my right was a closet used for storing mops, brooms, and buckets. But the room to my left was exactly what I was looking for: a Barnett student’s unlocked but empty room.

The room was a single. I could tell that unlike the other rooms, only one person lived here–there was only one bed, one dresser, a desk, and a tiny window overlooking the rest of the campus. I could tell, too, by the plain white curtains decorating the window and the worn navy bedspread covering the bed that this was not a rich student’s bedroom. Most of the other students had temperature-adjustable bedspreads and sheets, in bright Barnett green. But this student had selected a dark, old-fashioned bedspread strong enough to undergo many washings, flimsy curtains that gave only the illusion of privacy.

The walls were absent of decoration, and the dresser contained a soap dish, a bar of soap, an electronic toothbrush, and toothpaste–nothing more. I opened the closet and saw just two pairs of shoes–one set of black pumps, one set of mechanical running shoes. Other than the shoes, the closet was pretty bare–three or four white dresses hung neatly on hangers, next to a couple of suits and two pairs of jeans.

For the first time in my life, I knew what needed to be done, but couldn’t do it. Still, I forced myself to walk to the desk. I methodically went through it. Not much to see: an electronic photo album, a few fliers for a party, a bible. After going through the desk’s first drawer, I pulled open the second and found it–a small foldable tablet, the words “Space Travel History 101,” written on the thin green screen.

The screen’s arrow keys directed me to a series of tests with answer keys. Scrolling down, I saw that at least one hundred downloads had been saved on the tablet, for several subjects–including math, chemistry, and biology. A tablet worth, for me, several chips, more than a dozen z-cars. It fit in my palm, which would make it easy to transport without any Barnett women seeing. I could walk right past them, meet Ashland at the gate–and no one would ever know.

I closed the desk drawers, rearranged a few objects so everything was back in place. Then, I stood up to leave. In that moment, I saw a flash of brightness, a lime-colored light, shine through the room’s tiny window.

Shaking, I sat down on the bed. My tour of Barnett’s testing office and its secret dorm had shown me most Barnett students had little need for traditional books or notebooks. Nearly everything was done by FingerSnap; the only problem was the student needed to have enough memory on their version of FingerSnap to store lectures onto their wrists. Only a student who was truly poor would own an old-school writing tablet. This would be a student on academic scholarship, working part-time as a teaching assistant, and so had her own private room for studying. This was somebody who depended on her scholarship for books, meals, housing. I thought: Kipendo.

I put the tablet back inside the drawer, walked back down the hall.

The two girls who had been watching the FingerSnap screen had disappeared, though the two black wooden chairs still rigidly faced the white FingerSnap screen as though haunted by the words that had been in front of them. Indeed, the hall did seem oddly quiet; the doors to the rooms had all disappeared, so that all that was left was the empty hall and the distant crackle of the Momma Africa t.v. show. I couldn’t see a way out. I couldn’t see stairs or a way to return to any of the rooms I had visited just moments before. It was the most alone I’d felt in all my time at Barnett, and I remembered Kipendo, her wind chime laughter, Cara’s biting remarks. They seemed far away now, as though they belonged to a reality separate from mine.

Waving her wrist in front of her, Ashland came flying past me. Even though I was only a few feet away, I couldn’t catch her. Not that I could have if I wanted to–a door appeared and disappeared just long enough for Ashland to pass through.

I stopped in front of the door and mimicked Ashland’s movements. I held my wrist in front of it, but nothing happened. I stood there for five full minutes and was wondering if I’d ever be let out, which irritated the girl standing behind me. She was chubby, her hair pulled into a high ponytail at the top of her head. She blew SlimGum bubbles as she waited for the gates to open.

“Can’t you hurry up?” she asked. “I’m meeting this brother from David Walker. If I don’t leave and get back soon, I miss curfew.”

I remembered how, earlier, the Finger-Snapping upper-class woman had gotten inside the building, how she’d waved her wrists at the building, and it had simply melted. I tried two or three more times to wave my wrist the same way but the building remained unyielding.

I turned back to the girl. “You want to go first?”

“You know we don’t do that.”

I didn’t know what to say. Because I felt I was supposed to know—and didn’t. “My FingerSnap app–it doesn’t seem to be working.”

“App?” the girl stared at me. “You think an app lets you in, lets you out? Jesus, what are they teaching you freshwomen?” The girl paused and chewed on a fresh stick of SlimGum. The slow, measured ways she blew her bubbles reminded me of Narhonda. “The building lets in whoever’s meant to be here. Once you’re ready to leave, they open. Simple. Easy. The thing with the wrists, that’s just tradition. Has nothing to do with a FingerSnap app.”

I nodded as though I understood, though I didn’t–not quite. Still, I imagined myself back inside the ISP dorm. Sitting with Ashland inside our room and reading a book about the history of Space Travel.

When I waived my wrist again, the building disappeared, and I was just outside Barnett’s gates, standing alone on an abandoned street. The Ovitz parade had been wild and free, and confetti and leftover cans of Mud-Beer crowded pavement. A few ancient robots picked up scraps of trash, and there, in the center of the street, stood a Rat Person. My first time seeing one of the Rat People close up. He? She? It? Whatever this Rat Person’s gender, it moved quickly, seven feet of dark gray fur wobbling on thin, string-like legs. Despite the skinny legs, you couldn’t describe the Rat Person as slender; puffs of fur made its midsection resemble the underside of a large cat. The creature’s head was bent, and I could tell it was writing, scribbling against the street with a pale, blue chalk. I struggled to read the sky-colored letters pressed against the asphalt: “RATS.” At first that’s what I thought it spelled, but then I realized some of the letters were backwards. So, I looked at the word from the rat’s perspective. “STAR.” That’s what it actually said.

Ch. 11 – The Final Upload

Did she cheat on her the character section of her entrance exam? Of course not! How could you even ask such a… Well, it’s possible. Anything is possible.
–Dr. Patricia Washington, ex-Barnett President Pro Tempore

The winter of our second year in the program, Ashland’s grandmother made the final upload.

“They’ve transferred her to a hospice,” Ashland explained flatly, a couple of days before the transmission occurred. “She’s decided not to reboot.”

We were in our dorm room, which, in a fit of nostalgia, we’d painted rose, to match Jupiter’s once Great Spot. We had floor-length curtains, swirled with creams and browns to match the planet’s surface, and a large, solar-powered vibrating chair we nicknamed Ganymede because of its size. All in all, it was a comfortable, airy room, and we felt our Jupiter motif gave it a vastness the other dorm rooms lacked.

“They put her virtual reality glasses on yet?” I tried not to sound impatient. I had an appointment with my financial aid counselor, but people tended to get upset when you talked about the final upload in overly casual language. Besides, I’d met Ashland’s grandmother. Although two years had passed, I still hadn’t told Ashland I wasn’t an orphan, so she always invited me to her home for holidays. I’d ended up having dinner with Ashland and her grandmother last Thanksgiving. I remembered her as a smiling, generous woman who’d offered second helpings of everything. Even though it hadn’t yet been approved by the FDA, I chewed Slim Gum for an entire week to burn off the calories.

“She’s being fitted for them. She says she wants to hear ‘When the Saints Come Marching In’—it’s an old tune—and the engineers are having trouble locating it through FingerSnap. Most people just want to hear birds chirping, maybe a harpsichord. But at least her visual images are pretty standard—blue skies, clouds—so it shouldn’t be too much longer.”

“The holiday break’s in a couple of days.”

“I know.”

“You’ll stay here?”

“Probably.” Ashland collapsed onto Ganymede. She didn’t appear sad, just more tired than usual. “Funerals are getting expensive. I don’t have the chips to download all of Big Momma’s life’s memories.”

“Big Momma?”

“She was my parental figure. My mother transferred her eggs to her, and she carried me.” Ashland rubbed her cheek against one of Ganymede’s pillows. “So you see, soon I’ll be an orphan too.”

“That’s why I never met your mother. Your grandmother was your carrier–and what about your mother?”

“Addicted to Blue.” Ashland stood up. She opened the curtains and waves of sunlight made the walls shiny, appear almost liquid with red and orange light. “Don’t you have somewhere to go?”

I nodded. I hadn’t forgotten about my appointment, but again, conversations about the final upload were always fraught. “If you don’t have the chips, you can just purchase a premium package. That’ll give you enough REM to have recordings of her birth, first kiss, college graduation, and maybe her wedding, if she married before thirty. I’m pretty sure premium covers memories up to age thirty.”

“That’s not good enough.” Ashland was still facing the window, and so I couldn’t see her face, just her silhouette in the bright light surrounding her. “I want memories of her raising me. The two of us going to the zoo together. The first time she let me navigate the z-car. And not just the things I remember. What it was like the first time she held me—I want that too…They say that there’s enough money in the system that prisoners and our political enemies receive virtual reality glasses with red flames, the sounds of moaning, when they get their final upload. But people who’ve worked hard all their lives, who’ve paid into the system, have to scrimp and save for a premium package. It’s like our lives mean shit. The whole system is NSH-ing broken.”

“Please don’t talk like that.” I tried to keep my tone even—and had to subtly adjust my settings to avoid a change in pitch. Of course the final upload was a serious conversation, but Ashland’s tone was highly inappropriate. Ashland had always had doubts about FingerSnap’s power and had frequently questioned its algorithm. But this was the first time I’d heard her say anything about its gigabytes of memory. “Please don’t profane FingerSnap’s name like that.”

“We’ve got enough chips to torture our enemies, but we can’t help each other out—and no one even knows who’s running this NSH thing. I mean, do you know? Have you ever sat and thought about who invented FingerSnap? I’ve searched all my downloads, since kindergarten even, and that information was never transmitted.”

“You’re mistaken. It’s there. It has to be. You just haven’t searched hard enough.” I opened the door to show Ashland this conversation was ending. “Stop acting like you’re just not equipped for modern life. Everyone has doubts sometimes. Who knows? Maybe there’s better technology out there, something faster, more reliable. But remember this—without FingerSnap, we’re less than Rat People.”

I slammed the door, perhaps more strongly than I should have, but I found Ashland’s comments disturbing: Who invented FingerSnap? Who invented FingerSnap? The chant mocked me with every step I took, as I raced across Barnett’s green lawns, the grass hard and frosted with an early snow. Who invented—oh who cares who invented FingerSnap? It worked, didn’t it? You Snapped and received results, whatever information you needed. Just yesterday morning I Snapped, and a digital image of Annette Jennings, the President’s personal robotic secretary, informed me that I was to meet my financial aid counselor at the house of Dr. Patricia Washington, the acting college president after Dr. Henrietta Walker’s sudden final upload, just a few days before. The letter stated my appointment was to be held at 3 p.m., immediately after my last class.

It had been a difficult week. Dr. Walker’s final upload was the result of a heart attack, and the campus was still in a state of shock. She’d been having an argument with one of Barnett’s financial aid counselors, a robot who had been unable to locate donors or secure scholarships for any of Barnett’s five hundred and fifty-three students. “You’re fired. Deprogrammed. I’ve had enough,” Dr. Walker had said in front of a room of twenty other financial aid employees, and then collapsed to the ground. She’d been a popular president, not just locally or with people associated with Barnett, but with the entire nation. People respected her, admired her leadership, and felt proud of what she had exemplified. The day of her death, everyone from the students and faculty to the housekeeping staff and security guards wore black instead of the customary Barnett green.

I couldn’t imagine why I’d be asked to meet my counselor at the president’s house, and so soon after her death–I hadn’t done anything wrong, and though I had done well at Barnett, I hadn’t had time to establish myself in a significant way. Also, I wasn’t looking forward to the visit: the president’s house was the gloomiest building on Barnett’s sad yet majestic campus. It was rumored a slave had died in the garden surrounding the house. After the slave’s mistress had found out that her husband had had sexual relationship with her, the mistress made the slave work outside in the garden during the hottest day week of the year with no water or rest until she died from exhaustion. Throughout her life, the mistress was said to be overcome with guilt, and so she began supporting many PIP causes. And right before her death, the mistress had Barnett built and named after the legendary Ida B. Wells Barnett.

And with typical Barnett resolve, its unflinching and perhaps unpractical desire to make beauty out of tragedy, the garden had been designed to overflow with color and light. Flowers and small gardens punctuated the campus, but usually they were a pristine white to offset dark green lawns and uniforms. The president’s garden was different, dominated by brushes of blues and yellows, splashes of giddy pinks, dizzying purples. Some people said that in the center of the garden, a small tombstone marked the place where the slave had died. Others, the superstitious types, claimed the garden was haunted, but I’ve never been able to confirm either of these rumors. Few people had actually walked to the center of the garden, or had even walked up the steps to the president’s house.

Four and a half seconds after 3 p.m., I knocked on the President’s door. A small woman, about sixty years old and dressed in plain green cotton sundress, answered. Without asking my name or business, the woman led me into a foyer far more ornate than she. The woman was dressed simply, but polished floors reflected the foyer’s dark elegance, and museum-sized paintings overpowered the walls. In one corner, a cuckoo clock broke up the monotony of the somber paintings. A tiny, rose-colored chair—too small to hold anyone of substantial weight—sat directly across from the clock.

“The President will be with you in a minute,” the woman nodded towards the uncomfortable-looking chair. “Have a seat.”

“Thought I was meeting my counselor?”

The woman looked back at the chair, and repeated, “Please have a seat.”

I knew then that this meeting was a show of power. So it was best I do what I was told—even if the instructions were implied—because the slightest deviance from those orders would be seen as a sign of rebellion. I sat down with exaggerated meekness and the woman left.

I waited for two hours and fifty-three seconds. But I wasn’t bored. I was still angry at Ashland, confused by the message from Annette Jennings—and intrigued by the cuckoo clock. When the little bird popped out the clock, it captured my attention. Because of FingerSnap, you don’t see old, elaborate clocks like that anymore. I could have stayed in that foyer for another couple of hours, just to watch it work.

. We reached an open door that led to a tiny room filled with nothing but ceiling-high bookcases; it lacked even a couch or chair to sit on, but books, worn and musty, tumbled out of the bookcases, crowding the floor with abandoned ideas. We stumbled through this room to another directly behind it.

Patricia Washington sat in the room’s center, looking like a superhero. Mask-like foundation mashed against her face, a tailored silver suit that might as well have had a cape attached to it—the fabric was indestructible. Washington may have been president of Barnett for only a week, but she’d prepared for this moment her entire life. I’d met her before and had always thought of her as tiny, but at that moment, with her newfound confidence, she didn’t seem small. Rather, she seemed tightly packaged and powerful, like a weapon ready to go off. But if Washington looked like a superhero, the man sitting across from her was her sidekick. Collapsed inside a baggy business suit, his body sagged like damp paper.

I stuck out my hand and stated my name.

“Good to see you.” Washington smiled but made no attempt to shake my hand; neither did the man next to her. “I see you’ve met my sister.” Washington inclined her head towards the woman in the cotton sundress, much the same way that, earlier, the woman had nodded towards the uncomfortable chair.

Washington’s sister bobbed her head like her neck was curtseying. Then she exited the room.

“Glad you finally made it,” Washington said.

“Better late,” the man added, “than never.”

“My roommate and I had an argument.” I inhaled. The room smelled like peppermint, like Washington had released an air cleanser just as I’d entered the room. “I was just a few seconds late.”

“A few seconds is still late.” Washington leaned back in her chair and folded her arms.

“Mechanical shoes aren’t allowed on campus. It took five minutes and forty-three seconds to walk from the Jemison dorm.”

“Walk faster. Or run.”

“Where’s my counselor? Jennings’ message stated that I was to meet my financial aid counselor–”

“You like it here at Barnett?” Washington interrupted.

“My classes are enjoyable, the other lieutenants capable. But it’s expensive.” Spoken like a champion until two unpleasant thoughts crossed my mind: trespassing into the testing office and the illegal circuit-transfer with Ashland. Then: “Am I being expelled?”

“You’re not being expelled,” Washington said. “In fact, we’ve done some research–”

“These days, you can find out anything through FingerSnap. Seems you’re heavy into sex-Snapping,” the man giggled as though he expected me to be embarrassed but I was not. Sex-Snapping is one of life’s great pleasures, and one should never apologize for having dirty fingers.

“We’re not here to discuss her personal life,” Washington frowned, then stared at her wrist, which shook. The movement was slight, but enough to make you look more closely. That’s when you noticed the chipped paint along the surface of Washington’s arm. And that’s when you realized: Washington squeaked. The sound was slight, but there. She had NSH. I could feel it; I could tell. There was no doubt about it, but how long did she have? Again, the squeaking was light, so she must have been in the early stages, but did that mean she had months—or mere days—until she blew up?

“So why are we here?” I asked. Now that I knew Washington had NSH, I wanted to rush the conversation. I didn’t want her blowing up anywhere near me.

“Barnett’s Space Program is expanding. Becoming more environmentally conscious. And we’re partnering with the U.S. government,” Washington waved a hand at the man sitting next to her. “The project’s the North American Space Diving and Clean Up—known as NASDCU. This is Granite Reed, NASDCU’s chief of operations. He’s working with the president to develop the program. He wants a Barnett woman to be part of it,” Washington placed more emphasis on the word “Barnett” than the word “president.”

“You selected me for the program?”

Washington nodded. “Shortly before you entered junior high school, you and several other potential Barnett students took two tests. One tested critical thinking, the other measured moral character–”

“I remember. I did well on the critical thinking, but my character score was a negative five,” I said. “But people say the character section of the test was flawed.”

“The exam is flawed,” Washington agreed. “Asking folks whether it’s better to kill a baby or a priest. Trying to get eighteen-year-olds to write essays on random ethical dilemmas when their time should be spent conducting experiments. No one thinks like that anymore. What I’m asking people to do is look at the data and consider whether these tests really help our students. Walker approved of those old-fashioned tests. That’s where we disagreed.”

Reed smiled and I realized he’d been waiting years to run the program the way he wanted to.

“As a NASDCU trainee, you take advanced courses. Focus on science, language and coding. Maybe even review your Space History a little,” he said. “Thing is, you don’t become a full NASDCU member until graduation. And at this stage of the game, it’s not all glamour, you see? Don’t think you’ll be like one of the Ovitzes, with a reality t.v. show and your own fashion line. We want you in the muck, getting your hands dirty. So you’ll be orbiting the solar system and cleaning up the flotsam.”

“A glorified maid. No wonder you wanted a PIP for this position.” I didn’t want to look at Reed’s wide, lime-green eyes or Washington’s squeaky wrist, so I stared out the window above Washington’s desk. From where I sat, I could see the inside of the infamous garden. Pink and purple flower flooded the window with color. It was as though someone had sprinkled the soil with scyphoza and coral reefs.

“You look disappointed,” Reed said. “Don’t be. You graduate, do well, and you’ll work for us. Full-time.”

“You’re part of a team, dear.” Washington added. “You gather the space junk, test it for problems, figure out more acceptable ways of disposing it. You promote the program, its benefits for the environment, and we promote you.”

“So I’m doing PR?”

“You write a few vlogs, go to a few news conferences.”

“I’m a scientist. That isn’t real science.”

“You’ll be writing vlogs and going to news conferences, but this is important work. People are scared. The Rat People–they’ve chewed up people’s courage. Whatever people used to have, whatever used to lie within us that made us want to go out and learn something new, what first made us want to understand space and the unknown, that’s disappearing, and all because of a few seven-foot tall rats walking around,” Washington explained. “There’s more fear than curiosity these days. And we need you. So, yes, you’re recruiting for Barnett, but you’re also doing something more vital–encouraging young PIP women to pursue careers in space exploration.”

“Don’t get too excited, Lieutenant. You’ll make a lot of media appearances, but I’ll be honest–yours will be a lonely life,” Reed said. “Maybe lonely is the wrong word? Challenging. Your life, it’s a life that won’t be easy.”

Appendix 1 – Glossary for New Space Travelers

Barnett College—School acclaimed throughout the galaxy for its Space Travel programs for young women
Blue—Discovered in 2040 by Dr. Augustus Beauregarde, a chemist who was also a well-known chocolatier, Blue created feelings of euphoria, then melancholy in most subjects. When consumed in large doses, Blue turned homo sapiens’ skin a deep shade of blueish-purple and allowed temporary flight. Blue was particularly toxic for PIPS, and the skin of these frequent smokers sometimes took on a permanently blue tinge.
Circuit Transfer—Illegal when performed without medical training, the procedure involved transferring circuits from one human being to another, for the sake of better physical or mental performance
College Lockdown—An app, developed circa 2030, that protected college campus’s from trespassers and reported acts of violence. It was later expanded into a security device for other organizations, including the White House.
E-car—Electric car that was the predecessor to the more popular z-car
Final Upload, (The)—Transmission occurs when all of one’s lifetime of accumulated data is uploaded to the Great Computer (i.e., FingerSnap)
FingerSnap—The universe’s all-knowing super-computer; no one knows who programmed it
Great Fires, (The)—See entry under “NSH”
International Space Program of the First Order of the Highest Merit—Advanced and highly competitive space and rumored to be the best program in all the galaxy; entrance exam included more than 1,000 questions on Space History
Jes Crew Dance—A dance that erupted spontaneously in the 1920s, it was later choreographed by Ishmael Reed in 1972 and became a Barnett tradition in the 2030s.
Kep-10—Affectionate nickname for someone possessing the qualities of a Space Traveler
Leopard, Leonard—Rat Officer
NSH—Shorthand for nickel sulfate-hexahydrate. As nickel-related skin allergies had grown quite severe and hard to treat in those days (FingerSnap materials were partially derived from nickel), NSH-related explosions grew quite common. Eventually NSH became a profane way of describing anything bad from everyday annoyances to a lifelong curse. NSH is also a condition associated with the Great Fires, though to this day, the exact cause of the Great Fires still isnʼt completely understood
Ovitz, Family—A family of Space Travelers who developed their own reality tv. show and clothing line; the youngest Ovitz child also made a popular Sex-Snapping video shown AfterHours on FingerSnap
PIP—People of Intense Pigment
Rat Life—Magazine dedicated to the Rat People’s customs and culture
Rat People, (The)—An alien species that originated on the Planet XYZ
Sex-Snapping—Non-sexual sex; for effective downloading, requires FingerSnap systems 6.9 or higher.
Slim Gum—Diet gum/meal replacement that became especially popular in 2080
Todd Night—Attempted hostile takeover of FingerSnap’s TV100 but was eventually found to be not equipped for modern life
Z-cars—Environmentally-friendly cars that reached speeds of up to 500 miles per hour

Appendix 2
Photographs: Celebrating 50 Years of Space Voyages 2050-2100
Websites:
1) http://www.abc-7.com/story/10776670/abc7-news-scripts
2) http://www.wcax.com/story/452989/channel-3-news-scripts
3) http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Rosetta/Frequently_asked_questions
4) http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/williams-s.htm
5) http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Jupiter&Display=OverviewLong
6) http://therumpus.net/2014/01/the-rumpus-interview-with-rich-villar/
7) Julen Hernandez-Lallement’s work on rats
8) Jaak Panksepp’s rat studies, via Science Direct
9) Pound Cake Speech:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pound_Cake_speech

Books:
1) Astronaut Sunita Williams Achiever Extraordinaire [Kindle Edition] by Aradhika Sharma S. Seshadri
2)
“My God, It’s Full of Stars,” (poem) from Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011) by Tracy K. Smith
3) Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku

Spanish translation provided by Sabrina Patrick-Urrutia.
Chinese translation provided by James Lee.

Rochelle is founder of the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop and co-editor of the anthology All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2014). She enjoys weird, strange things.